arjumand khan ecocentreHelping the Merri Creek to heal helped Arjumand Khan form a new community – and in doing so, she's inspired hundreds to learn through the tactile experience of nature.

Arjumand Khan was pushing a pram past a noticeboard on her daily walk as a new arrival from India in 2006, when something on the noticeboard caught her attention. In the pram, her tiny baby slept soundly. A flyer on the noticeboard invited mothers of small children to join a local walking group.

As Arjumand walked the streets of Fawkner and along the Merri Creek, the walking group lingered in her mind. She was a new mother in a new country, without a network to support her through early motherhood. Her walks in nature along the Merri Creek gave her solace, but she yearned for community.

When Arjumand finally got up the courage to call the number on the flyer, she was told the group hadn’t got off the ground due to lack of a leader.

“Would you like to take on organising this group?” the voice asked. Hesitant but determined, Arjumand took on the challenge of being a walking leader.

Fifteen years later, Arjumand has connected hundreds of families and helped them to connect with nature and each other through what is now her business, STEM Catalyst – the walking group was just the beginning.

STEM Catalyst is an education provider that promotes and advocates for literacy in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in culturally and linguistically diverse communities, known as CALD communities. Arjumand has found the Merri Creek to be the perfect setting for many of her activities.

Many CALD communities live along and near the Merri Creek, particularly in new suburbs emerging in Melbourne’s northern growth area, where Merri Creek Management Committee is working to ensure waterways and biodiversity are protected as development increases.

Initially, Arjumand saw the Merri Creek as a place of comfort during some challenging early days of her life in Fawkner. Her favourite spot was near the midstream of the Merri Creek between Jukes and Anderson Roads, Fawkner. 

“There’s a little steep slope and as you walk down, the serene noise of that water flowing, or gushing, really hits you,” Arjumand explains. “It was a favourite place for me and my child because we used to stop by to listen to that water.”

Beyond her talents connecting the people of Merri Creek, Arjumand is a qualified environmental scientist. Like many migrants, she was facing barriers to employment in Australia. But with a deep passion for inspiring the next generation, she began volunteering at various organisations, including her own children’s school.

In 2017, the Royal Society of Victoria competitively selected Arjumand to deliver two newly introduced Science curriculum components to Victorian schools.  Arjumand undertook project management training and designed her science project with an aim to help break the stereotypical perceptions of STEM Careers amongst young Australians.

“I introduced nature-based STEM engagement activities, with an element of multicultural understanding,” Arjumand says. "Students were suprised to see a hijabi scientist.

Initially, Arjumand and her band of volunteers spent a year working unpaid in a school, running a science club for kids at lunchtime.

“I volunteered to support teachers and students throught the CSIRO STEM Professionals in Schools program. Many other mothers within the community have taken a parental break and have tertiary degrees, and they were very willing to support the program.

“That’s how STEM Catalyst came into being in 2019,” Arjumand explains.

Julia Cirillo, environmental educator from Merri Creek Management Committee explains that Arjumand has been a critical leader in this space, working with us on citizen-science education programs with her communities. Together, Julia and Arjumand have co-delivered waterbug and wetland discovery events, as well as frog walk-and-talk events.

“Arjumand is incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and passionate in the way she engages with people to care for the Merri Creek,” Julia says. “She has inspired hundreds of others within her networks, which is essential to keeping the landscape healthy and a place where both people and our native flora and fauna can live healthy lives.”

Today, STEM Catalyst is supported by state government departments, local councils, community organisations and education facilities and aims to help children from culturally diverse and low socio-economic backgrounds to appreciate STEM. STEM Catalyst also deliver workshops as part of Merri Creek Management Committee’s Waterwatch program, teaching volunteers how to test water quality.

Arjumand’s next challenge was inspiring adults to get engaged in conservation and stewardship of their waterway.

“In our countries like India, Pakistan, and other Asian, countries, I see that nature is by itself, and people are more inclined towards urbanising,” Arjumand says.

Arjumand explains that many people from multi-cultural communities have been raised with negative emotions towards nature: that dirt contains dangerous microorganisms, and that grass may be too dirty to sit on. For many, the concept of caring for a natural space is new, even though the creek may be just beyond their back fence.

Attitudes are changing and Arjumand now has adults attending water monitoring sessions, learning about wild pollinators and even studying clouds in NASA-based citizen-science projects.

For Arjumand, its incredibly gratifying to witness communities embracing nature – and her own children relishing their time in nature.

“My son used to roll down the hill,” Arjumand laughs. “Every time he saw a steep thing, he would roll down it. I see that connection is huge because there’s nothing that could offer so much bounty, like nature.”


Watch video CALD Waterwatch

Watch our video about how Merri Creek Management Committee works with culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Story by Carolyn Beasley / Images courtesy of STEM Catalyst